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Hot Docs 2023: Russian Films Depict the Brink of War at the Festival’s 30th Anniversary Edition

A cast dressed in sophisticated attire, including tuxedos and cocktail dresses, act out a dramatic scene where several people sit on the floor crying dramatically. Cameras, microphones and crew members are clearly visible.Soviet Barbara, The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow

This year’s 30th anniversary edition of Hot Docs, North America’s largest doc fest, (which ran from April 27 to May 7) was, perhaps unsurprisingly, jam-packed with so many world-premiering films and one-of-a-kind industry events as to be a bit overwhelming. (Fortunately, Hot Docs also boasts one of the smoothest festival apps around to help alleviate all that scheduling stress.)

That said, I did manage to make the most of my four days in Toronto, even popping in on the prestigious Hot Docs Forum (which was both impressive and tough to cover with three projects subject to a total media blackout, and another nine with myriad restrictions). There was also the newly expanded Hot Docs Podcast Festival Showcase, which featured both the industry side held at the beautifully designed TIFF Bell Lightbox, along with five live public events at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, from an evening with the Radiolab guys to another featuring the Canadian cohosts of Wondery’s Scamfluencers. And naturally, Kara Swisher got her own night, too. (I also wrote dispatches from Podcast Festival Showcase panels “Podcasts and Op-Docs at The New York Times: Meet the Decision Makers” and “Non-Fiction Without Borders: A Co-Production Case Study with The LA Times and CBC Podcasts.”)

Then there were the docs themselves—another wealth of nonfiction riches from which to pick. Most unexpected though was the fact that, while once again there was rightly an entire program dedicated to the ongoing front-page war (“Made in Ukraine” consisted of five features, and also four shorts under the defiant banner “Films That Bring The Victory Closer: Civil Pitch 2.0 Winning Films presented by Docudays UA”), it was several films instead set in Russia during the lead-up—all expertly crafted by outsider eyes—that most rocked my world. Indeed, with the unlawful invasion as backdrop, as opposed to the main event, the following trio of films (from comedic to tragic, oftentimes both) provided a glimpse into daily surreal life on the “other side.” And left me with that head-spinning feeling I go to formidable fests like Hot Docs for.

Soviet Barbara, The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow

I’d never heard of Ragnar Kjartansson before seeing the name of the world-renowned, Icelandic multimedia artist in the eye-catching title of Gaukur Úlfarsson’s Soviet Barbara, The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow. But I’d most certainly heard of Santa Barbara, having first encountered the city as a kid watching the addictive soap opera of the same name. (Though, admittedly, I can’t recall much about the campy series other than that it starred a young and innocent—i.e. pre-Penn—Robin Wright.) And in this sense I had something in common with the newly capitalist-minted citizens of the former USSR, who also tuned in week after week to see how those in the rich and famous West lived (and died, usually in nefarious ways).

Needless to say, Soviet Barbara does not star Robin Wright. Basically, Kjartansson, a jovial provocateur who seems to have never met a medium he didn’t like (according to Wikipedia his “video installations, performances, drawings, and paintings incorporate the history of film, music, visual culture, and literature”), takes up the too-good-to-refuse offer to both present a retrospective and stage a new creation inside a massive power plant turned museum (designed by Renzo Piano’s firm)—and takes Úlfarsson and his camera along for the ride. Though upon closer inspection, that offer likewise turned out to be too good to be true. For the “GES-2—House of Culture” sits not far from the Kremlin, and is owned by the Putin-aligned oligarch Leonid Mikhelson. In other words, political shenanigans definitely not allowed.

So Kjartansson brilliantly chooses to resurrect an internationally beloved soap by enlisting 70 Russians to reenact one episode of Santa Barbara live every day (in Russian), culminating in 100 works to run throughout the exhibition. But then rumors of an impending war begin to surface. And Putin suddenly decides he wants a preview of the show before it opens. Which means that, in hindsight, enthusiastically giving Masha of Pussy Riot that personal tour might not have been the most brilliant idea.

Calls from Moscow

Though Luis Alejandro Yero’s Calls from Moscow takes place in the same city, and likewise during the lead-up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it’s worlds away from Soviet Barbara in both subject matter and tone. Indeed, the striking doc plays more like a psychological horror film, the war offscreen looming like an unseen bogeyman. Shot pretty much entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a small barebones flat, it stars four queer Cuban men who simply go about their daily, repetitively monotonous, remotely-connected lives as best they can. There’s online peddling, checking in back home, and performing for TikTok, before they rinse up and repeat—even as the dreariness and sense of foreboding become an unbearably suffocating mix. Between the stillness and empty spaces, the ambient sounds and ominous alien droning, the exquisite framing of rooms and the desperate exiles “trapped” inside them, a jarring existential portrait emerges: Like watching Tolstoy body-snatch Havana.

The Last Relic

The last Russia-set doc with the war buildup as backdrop, lensed by veteran Estonian filmmaker Marianna Kaat, The Last Relic takes place both near and far from the seat of power. The city of Yekaterinburg is around a thousand miles from Moscow, but it’s likewise home to the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks there a century-plus back. And the proud locals still hold both a torch and a grudge.

In fact, not only are these nationalistic folk nostalgic for those good old imperialist days, but it’s baked into the city’s very culture—from glamorous debutante balls to bombastic military parades, even as most Yekaterinburgers struggle just to put food on the table. And yet there is also a small cadre of dissidents, rivetingly split along a generational divide, who try (and fail and debate and then try again) to break through the deafening drumbeat, the propagandistic noise. That is until a modern-day Romanov curse, in the form of that Kremlin crackdown, threatens to come for them.

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